Tourism in Late Colonial Vietnam


A review of Vietnamese Tourism in Late-Colonial Central Vietnam, 1917–1945, by Erich deWald.

Erich deWald has written an illuminating history of a phenomenon that has been overlooked both within South-East Asian tourism history, as well as tourism history more generally: namely, the travel experience of indigenous tourists within a country. deWald focuses his study on Annam, a central province in Vietnam that did not contain as many attractions as other regions in the French colony, but nevertheless attracted a growing community of indigenous visitors during the period 1917 to 1945. The result is an intriguing picture of a pursuit by middle class Vietnamese that grew in importance throughout these years, and operated both alongside and counter to the more characteristic tourist experiences of wealthier visitors.

Much of the current literature on tourism history has focused upon the European or American experience, exploring the touristic gaze, the various promotional representations of spaces and peoples, and the actions of the holidaymakers themselves. Studies that have examined the indigenous experience of tourism have tended to concentrate upon the role that tourism has played in forging local identities in the communities that received visitors. When indigenous travelers have been analysed, it has been the wealthier elements of society who have formed the basis for investigation. These studies have revealed some interesting results, yet they have also put across the impression that tourism was ‘limited’, deWald argues, both in terms of its appeal and its success. By virtue of their small numbers, the Vietnamese elites were never able to make a significant impact upon the domestic tourism industry. deWald’s study is refreshing in that it explores a previously overlooked market who were increasingly active in the domestic tourism industry. Furthermore, the study’s temporal focus reveals a world of domestic, indigenous leisure travel at work earlier than often assumed. Rather than being, as deWald says, merely a ‘poor parody of a metropolitan original’ (p.13), what he has unearthed is an ‘active and lively world of leisure travel’ (p.16) that was enjoyed by an ever more significant group within Vietnamese society. Similarly, through this lens, and using the geographic centre that he does, deWald highlights many perceptions, representations and experiences outside of those that were generated by the French colonial government for the visitors that they were trying to attract. Ultimately, what materializes, is a colonized people who ‘rarely appear as agents’ (p.26) in the literature acting as a body of consumers and actors, and impacting upon the local tourism landscape.

The thesis is divided into two major parts, along with an introduction and a brief conclusion. The two parts explore two spatially different tourist experiences, namely the rural and the urban, and are each broken up into different chapters that deal with particular types of holiday experience. Part One deals with rural tourism, and explores the hill stations and seaside resorts of Annam. The first chapter in this part concentrates on the hillside resorts of Bà Nà and Bạch Mã, and deWald argues that their popularity with Vietnamese visitors was partly as a means to display status, but also as a means to ‘reinvigorate older Vietnamese and east Asian traditions of engagement with nature and with the body’ (p.37), which was bolstered by traveling to these hill stations and sharing the experience with others. The second chapter explores the seaside resort of Cửa Tùng, where, it is argued, new forms of physical activity and new ways of seeing the topography helped reinvent the ways that a Vietnamese middle class interacted with their shorelines.

Part Two focuses upon the urban tourism industry, and is divided into three chapters that analyse three different events in the city of Huế: the fair-exhibitions of the mid-1930s, the Huế ‘Olympics’, and the Confucian Nam Giao festival. The fair exhibition, particularly the one that took place in 1935, set out to create an imperial mindset among the colonized residents, but instead, it is argued, this intent had to engage with local conditions. What emerged was a visitor experience that critiqued the exhibits on display in such a way that highlighted the importance of leisure travel as a means of acquiring and utilizing knowledge. Similarly the Huế sports festival and Nam Giao religious festival attracted people into Huế and focused visitors’ attitudes around issues such as sport, religion and the role of the emperor within contemporary Vietnamese society. deWald argues that people felt more able, due to their new found world experience, to act both as commentators as well as guardians of modern society in Vietnam, and these events were useful in realizing that role.

An important aspect of deWald’s study is his use of source material. Where previous investigations of tourism within Vietnam have employed the archival data available in both France and Vietnam, deWald has sought out more popular material in the form of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals produced in quốc ngữ, the Latinized national script of Vietnam. Alongside published accounts written by Vietnamese travelers, as well as the archives written principally in French, deWald has been able to paint a fuller picture of the tourist experience in central Vietnam than would have been previously possible. By choosing to use these sources he has illuminated a formerly invisible community, and they have highlighted a range of activities, from swimming to ping pong, that helped form the domestic tourist experience and subsequent social and political attitudes.

Vietnamese Tourism in Late-Colonial Central Vietnam, 1917–1945 by Erich deWald is ultimately an analysis of how domestic tourists in Vietnam traveled within their country. It explores their motivations for traveling, how they responded to the promotional material produced for them, and how they engaged with the opportunities presented to them as consumers. The thesis unpacks the political economy of tourism in central Vietnam from the perspective of the indigenous tourist, picking out some common features across various forms of tourism, from the hill station to a Confucian festival. deWald acknowledges that the tourist experience in Vietnam was not limited to these five particular events or types, but he makes a convincing case for them as being five attractions that exemplify the indigenous tourist culture in central Vietnam, and thus as worthy of investigation.

Ed Teversham
DPhil Candidate
St. Cross College
University of Oxford

Primary Sources

Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris (material in quốc ngữ and French)
Thư Viện Quốc Gia Việt Nam (National Library of Vietnam) in Hanoi
Thư Viện Khoa Học Tổng Hợp (General Sciences Library) in Hồ Chí Minh City
Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (Anom)
Résidence Supérieure du Tonkin

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 2012. 225 pp. Primary Advisor: William Gervase Clarence-Smith.

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